When you think of German companies, what are some of the first things that come to mind? The terms that cross my mind are precision manufacturing, innovation, and sleek design—three phrases that couldn’t be any more accurate in describing the German firm Sennheiser and their approach to audio. What specifically calls these thoughts to mind are the firm’s flagship IE 80 earphones ($449.95) and the brilliant sound that they produce.
When the IE 80s first arrived on my desk I was excited to try them out, but also a bit wary of their unique, adjustable “sound tuning” feature. While the idea of user-adjustable voicing sounds good on paper, I was concerned that it might be one of those features where the twist of an adjustment knob might wind up applying a layer of muddy bass on top of what could otherwise be a very balanced sound. Well, I’m glad I didn’t voice my unspoken concerns, because if I had I would be eating those words and I wouldn’t have got the chance to review such an expressive and transparent-sounding pair of earphones. The key to the IE 80’s design lies in fact that it can to be tuned to suit not only different user’s tastes, but also to fit the requirements of different genres of music.
• Brushed metal earpiece housing.
• Powerful dynamic drivers with neodymium magnets are said to provide excellent clarity and response.
• Left and right earpieces feature tiny, inset “sound tuning” adjustment screws that can be used to adjust bass response and thus the perceived voicing of the entire earphone. A compact cleaning/sound-tuning adjustment tool is included. Small, graduated markings surrounding the adjustment screws make it easy for users to achieve repeatable, consistent voicing settings.
• A sturdy, user-replaceable signal cable with a 90-degree “L” shaped 3.5mm mini-jack plug.
• Noise isolation of up to 26 dB allows for detailed listening at lower levels.
• Included accessories: 10 (yes, ten) sets of ear tips, optional ear hooks, cleaning tool/response adjustment tool, shirt clip, and a magnetic-closure, hard-shell case finished in the same brushed metals as the earphones themselves.
First, the IE 80 has a superbly natural tonal balance that, at least among the many earphones and headphones I’ve heard thus far, achieves a level of sonic neutrality few others can attain. It really takes listening to the IE 80 alongside other earphones that do have a bass- or treble-heavy tonal balance in order to appreciate what the Sennheiser’s neutral balance does for musical selections.
In my listening sessions with the IE 80 I often found myself becoming engrossed in the music to a point where I really was no longer reviewing but purely enjoying the music as a whole (and isn’t that what we’re all striving for in choosing our earphones?). When earphones let each part of the mix stand on its own, rather than pushing certain groups of frequencies forward to the exclusion of others, that’s when you reach true audio magic—magic the IE 80 easily makes happen. Having said that, I realize some of you may be inclined to ask, “But Garrett, the IE 80 has a bass tuning feature…how does that not alter the excellent tonal balance you just mentioned?”
Sennheiser did their homework when they created the IE 80’s sound-tuning feature because when the tuning screws are set for flat response, the bass balance sounds completely neutral. Then, as you dial up the bass response with the included adjustment tool you’ll find that the bass levels increase at a comfortable pace. I was worried that if I turned up the bass adjustment even a small bit that it would muddy up the low end and/or impose obvious colorations on the critical transition region between the upper bass and lower midrange. But, what I found was that instead of distorting the sound, the IE 80’s sound tuning control gently and gradually brought up perceived bass levels and also brought up lower mids at higher settings. This helped to smooth overall tonal balance so that when using the sound tuning controls there was never a sudden, isolated jump in bass energy. Perhaps the best application of this feature iinvolves tuning the earphones to fit specific genres and making them sound ideal to your tastes. In short, you get multiple voicings for the price of one.
The next characteristic that set the IE 80 ahead of the pack was the imaging it achieved—an area where the Sennheiser’s performance makes you realize what you’ve been missing (even if you are already accustomed to very high performance earphones). I’m blessed to say that my “daily driver” earphones are a pair of Audéo/Phonak PFE 232s—earphones whose performance will blow most listeners away. But until I listened to the IE 80 I hadn’t realized the imaging of my PFE 232s was, in a sense, hitting a bit of a sonic “wall.” When I listen through my PFE 232s, I find that the stereo images that they produce unfold largely within my head, as if extending from the left earphone to the right, but not past that point. With the IE 80 however, I feel sounds are emanating from multiple feet beyond either side of my head, so that stereo images have much more room to unfold and breathe. It is something to behold when music from miniature drivers placed within your ears are able to create images with spaciousness and breathing room more typical of a loudspeaker.